Oklahoma: Ground Zero at Plaza Towers

Last month, I spent a week working in the neighborhood outside of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. Since an EF-5 tornado touched down tore through there five weeks ago, that location has taken on many different identities. A school by function, Plaza Towers became a shelter of last resort for the children whose parents were not able to pick them up between the warning and lockdown. When the tornado tore through it was a focal point of nature’s fury. On the afternoon of May 20, when news helicopters overhead broadcast a live feed of first responders desperately digging to save schoolchildren trapped in the rubble, Plaza Towers became an icon. Hours later the school earned its final title, that of hallowed ground. Hallowed ground was the only option left when the lifeless bodies of 7 schoolchildren were pulled from the basement of the school. Somewhere in the time between, the neighborhood around it became work for us.

It took our teams a few days to secure appropriate municipal permissions, mobilize volunteers and set up camp. But for the past four weeks our crews have been helping homeowners in the worst affected areas salvage what they can of their blown-apart lives and slowly return to normal.

Tornadoes are one of the more fickle disasters in nature’s arsenal. The damage is amazing inconsistent. On one block we would find a few homes missing shingles. A hundred meters away, homes were nothing but a pile of wood/brick/insulation/etc on concrete slabs. The neighborhood around Plaza Towers looked like the dump at Riis Park after Hurricane Sandy when Sanitation turned a vacant lot into the most active landfill in the country. The idea that this was a pleasant little suburb, with winding streets and cul-de-sacs named ‘Eagle Drive’ and ‘Santa Fe Avenue’ was impossible to imagine. Easier to think that a bomb had been dropped than to comprehend the destructive force of a EF-5 tornado. And it only hit ‘5’ on the Extended Fugiyama scale briefly. Simply put, the unbelievable could have been a whole lot worse.

One of the sites we worked on, a pile of rubble that used to be the home of a retired soldier, gave me pause. Sifting through his debris, we were able to recover his old Army personnel records, family photo albums, yearbooks and love letters. Everything else, kitchen sinks included, we hauled to the curb for free trash hauling. The government would pick up debris from curbside for free, but getting those literal fragments of shattered lives, coated in mud and buried under splintered beams, there was where we found our work. We cannot replace the lives and homes lost, but we can speed up up the recovery and save victims money to rebuild.

Sifting through the remains of the house, it’s impossible to avoid thinking about how your own life would look post-disaster. To do this work, you need to put yourself in the victim’s shoes: your life has been upended, thrown helter-skelter. Friends have been injured and friends have been killed. It’s a time to remember, a time to move on, and a time to figure out what to leave in the past and what to bring to the present. We tried to be diligent in our salvaging, exercising selective judgment. Sometimes it can be better to just start anew than try to lug around tchatkes weighed down with tired associations. Still, memories cannot be replaced, so we hunted for the few scraps worth saving.

Of course, there are moments of levity. A secret porn stash, vintage video games, embarrassing yearbook photos. At one home, we were able to recover a cache of bondage equipment – whips, chains, ball-gags, gimp mask – along with a rather informative collection of literature (all real titles): “S&M 101”, “A Beginner’s Guide to Flogging”, “Newsletter of the Tulsa Dungeon Society”. We decided not to put those items in the ‘keeper’ pile. Perhaps they were proud fetishists, but that wasn’t a gamble we felt like making. It was definitely a good reminder that everyone has their secrets, and with exposure there is more to worry about than the wind and rain.

Disasters are instructive; you learn a lot. Like that Tulsa has a ‘Dungeon Society’ (and one active enough to have a newsletter!). One of our crew members had never even heard of flogging before he heard way too much. The humor is critical, as in time more sobering anecdotes start to blot your consciousness. The S&M aficionado’s neighbor, a firefighter with the local department, picked up his daughter from Plaza Towers five minutes before the school locked down and the remaining kids took shelter in the terrible. A couple minutes separated his daughter from being a name on a cross to the bouncy blonde who kept running back-and-forth from her daddy’s truck to deliver cold water.

In a lot of ways, the disaster zone was inundated with good will and hope. Churches, social groups, and volunteer organizations from every part of the country poured in. Barbecue stations kept us fed, folks wandered around with ice cold beverages for volunteers and homeowners, people were even offering free acupuncture and massages to both victims and volunteers. Disasters upset the norm, turn one day from any day into That Day, and with the shake-up allows folks a chance to act with a benevolence and mercy that could quickly get taken advantage of otherwise. You see the best when folks are overwhelmed and have no option left but sincerity.

We brought some toys to give to the kids in the neighborhood. This gift meant so much to one young girl, who was with her parents searching the ruins of their home, that she dug through the debris for a gift to give back to our team. Not finding anything suitable, she took the underside of a roofing shingle from the debris and painted a rainbow on it. It was a cute token, a nice upcycling of trash, but the emotional weight of the gesture didn’t land until later. Off to the side, her parents confided in us that she had been one of the last survivors pulled from the rubble of Plaza Towers.

It took a while, but the storm eventually spawned some rainbows.

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